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Nichelle Nichols, trailblazing 'Star Trek' icon who originated the role of Lt. Uhura, dies at 89
Nichols made television history in the role of Lt. Uhura aboard the USS Enterprise.
Beloved Star Trek icon Nichelle Nichols has died at the age of 89.
"I regret to inform you that a great light in the firmament no longer shines for us as it has for so many years," the actress's son, Kyle Johnson, confirmed on Instagram today. "Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away. Her light however, like the ancient galaxies now being seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from, and draw inspiration. Hers was a life well-lived and as such, a model for us all. I, and the rest of our family, would appreciate your patience and forbearance as we grieve her loss until we can recover sufficiently to speak further. Her services will be for family members and the closest of her friends and we request that her and our privacy be respected. Live Long and Prosper."
LIFE BEFORE TREK
Grace Dell Nichols was born in Illinois on Dec. 28, 1932 to Samuel and Lishia Nichols. Samuel Earl Nichols was the town mayor as well as its chief magistrate. Nichols studied acting in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles before getting her break in the 1961 musical, Kicks and Co, playing a young girl who was tempted by a ficticious publication called Orgy Magazine to be their “Orgy Maiden of the Month.” While the musical was not a success, it led to further opportunities for her as a singer and a dancer, with modeling work in between them all.
Going on to tour the US and Europe as a singer with both the Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton bands, Nichols also went on to appear in The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd on the west coast, as well as as earning raves for her performance in the James Baldwin play Blues for Mister Charlie. She eventually became noticed by Gene Roddenberry, and appeared on his first television foray. Appearing as a guest on Roddenberry’s The Lieutenant, the episode that Nichols was involved in dealt with racial prejudice.
WHERE NO BLACK WOMAN HAD GONE BEFORE
Having earned the notice of Roddenberrry, Nichols of course went on to get a job on his next show, an experimental science fiction program called Star Trek. As Lieutenant Uhura, Nichols was playing a full-fledged bridge officer and valued member of the crew. In 1966, it was unheard of for a black woman to be on television in such a role, neither playing a maid or a servant.
Out of the main cast, only William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForrest Kelley appeared in more episodes. Starting with The Man Trap, Nichols appeared in 69 episodes out of 80, beating the tally of James Doohan's Scotty by 3. Though she was always in the classic red miniskirt uniform (aside from couple of times she was in yellow), and she wouldn't get a decent pair of pants until the films, Nichols was able to show a tremendous strength (and sometimes a fantastic singing voice) all the same. As some would come to notate, her mere presence on the bridge of that ship was a big deal.
In terms of storylines, she wasn't featured all that often (it wasn't until The Animated Series where she actully got to command the ship), but one episode that features her continually sticks out among all the rest.
The episode Plato's Stepchildren broke down further racial barriers in 1968, when Nichols and William Shatner's Captain Kirk shared the first interracial kiss in television history. Though the episode’s story explains it away with the sci-fi twist of alien interference (the characters weren't in love, and it was never brought up again), many didn’t care about that aspect of it. Dealing with both celebration as well as protest, many viewers, racist or otherwise, didn’t blame Shatner’s Kirk for kissing the gorgeous Uhura. Whatever outrage was caused by the kiss was not why any further romance between the characters never materialized, however-- the original show was highly episodic, and the events of one episode almost never affected the next one.
When referring to the famous kiss in a 2006 roast of Shatner, Nichols quipped to Shatner, “Let’s make TV history again, and you can kiss my black ass!”
Though the show was an initial success, the space drama wasn’t exactly what Nichols had in mind for her career. She was much more interested in a career on Broadway, but it was a conversation with none other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that convinced her to stay on the bridge of the Enterprise. A day after telling Roddenberry of her intentions to leave the show, Nichols was at a fundraiser for the NAACP and was informed that there was a fan who wanted to meet her. As she says,
“I thought it was a Trekkie, and so I said, ‘Sure.’ I looked across the room, and there was Dr. Martin Luther King walking towards me with this big grin on his face. He reached out to me and said, 'Yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan.' He said that Star Trek was the only show that he, and his wife Coretta, would allow their three little children to stay up and watch.”
When she told Dr. King of her plans to leave the series, Nichols says that he was adamantly against it, saying, “You can't. You're part of history.” Nichols of course decided to stay with the show, continuing to be a role model for all black women and children.
She was an inspiration that spread far and wide-- NASA astronaut Mae Jemison credits Nichols’ role as her inspiration to want to be an astronaut. A young Whoopi Goldberg (a future Trek actress herself) was also greatly inspired by Nichols, as she was astounded that there was someone who looked like her on TV, and was not playing a maid. It was a pivotal moment for Goldberg, who’s life-long love for Trek eventually landed her a recurring role on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
MR. ADVENTURE EATING OUT OF HER HAND
Though the original Star Trek ended after only three seasons in 1969, Nichols’ work as Uhura was far from over. She went on to play the character in Star Trek: The Animated Series, as well as all six of the Trek films that featured the original cast. While her character was occasionally sidelined in the films, Uhura does get a few stand-out moments like the one below, from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.
Though her acting career was defined by Star Trek, it certainly wasn’t limited to it. She lent her vocal talents to shows such as Gargoyles, Batman: The Animated Series, and played herself in both The Simpsons and Futurama. Other appearances include the films Snow Dogs, Lady Magdalene’s,The Torturer, and a big of self-mockery in Sharknado 5: Global Swarming. She also appeared in the television shows Heroes, Downward Dog, as well as The Young and the Restless, where her appearance earned her a Daytime Emmy Award nomination for “Outstanding Guest Performer in a Drama Series” in 2017.
Nichelle Nichols was an honorary member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, received an honorary degree from Los Angeles Mission College, and had an asteroid named in her honor—Asteroid 68410 Nichols. In addition, she received the Life Career Award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films in 2016.
Nichols has continued to make appearances at Trek-related events, including the world premiere of Star Trek: Discovery a few years ago. The show marks the first time the lead character is a Black woman (played by Sonequa Martin-Green), it was only appropriate that Nichols was there to celebrate the landmark. Without Lieutenant Uhura, there’s a very good chance there would be no Michael Burnham. Nichols' only advice to Martin-Green was this: “Enjoy this moment. It’s yours now.”
Though Nichols is gone, her contributions to the world of science fiction (and the arts in general) will never be forgotten. The fearless actress behind the equally fearless communications officer truly helped to increase communications on both sides of the screen, and for that reason as well as countless more, we celebrate her life and career. Hailing frequencies will forever remain open.
Additional reporting by Josh Weiss